Naked No More: Sanctification and Shame

恥について 二 On Shame: Part II

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened — not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. (2 Corinthians 5:1–5).

This passage confused me a lot as a young Christian. Paul moves from the beatific vision at the end of 2 Corinthians 4 to discussing tents, buildings, heaven, and nakedness. The mix of metaphors forces careful reading, but that isn’t what was particularly confusing for me. The question that stumped me was, “Why not want to be naked?”

Of course I understood that in the fallen world we live in it is no longer comfortable or appropriate to be naked (even in what D.A. Carson calls the “best kind of nudist colony”). This is a reference to Eden, the paradise that once belonged to our progenitors, but which has always been lost to us. We live in a world full of sin. We are by nature guilty and full of shame. Our world (the container and its contents) is corrupt and decaying. We long for a life without sin, for a garden without thorns, and for relationships without shame. Don’t we long for Eden?

In our shame, we are tempted to long for a return to Eden — a garden where shame was never known, but Paul beckons us to hope for something greater. No, Eden and its dress code are not for us or our post-lapsarian world; God has something better. Eden is a memory that barely belongs to us who have never known holiness apart from sin, but we wish for it nevertheless. Paul bids us to hope for the future. Our earthly home is a tent that is worn ragged in every imaginable way, and we need a building. We dress ourselves in fig leaves, but we need true clothes.

This passage presents a vision of the Eschaton — the renewal of all things, when what is mortal is swallowed up by life. Paul doesn’t leave the beatific vision behind after all; he reminds us again that we live in the already, but not yet. Our gaze must always be hopeful and hope is always rightly future-oriented. We do not long to go back in time, returning to Eden, but we long for the full future consummation of Eden. We hope for New Heavens and a New Earth, and there we will need new clothes. This tells us something profound about the Christian’s experience of shame.

One of my seminary students once shared how when she confesses her sins, she feels better, but when she shares about her shame she feels worse. Shame is not simply related to personal sin (actual sin), but to wholesale corruption (original sin) — defects in myself — body, heart, soul, mind, and strength — and the community — be it a family, a neighborhood, or a company. Sin can be confessed and the Gospel provides good news that our record has been wiped clean through the blood of Christ. But shame is naked bodiliness — it doesn’t go away simply as a result of forgiven sins. And like our bodies, shame is being dealt with eschatologically — already, but not yet. God has given his Spirit to us as a guarantee of the new life which is already, but not yet. And in this season, we groan.

These groans are of the Spirit who intercedes for us with “groanings too deep for words” along with all of creation, “as we wait eagerly for adoptions as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:26, 23). We groan not about the past but for the future. We cannot return to Eden and eat of the tree of life. That is not the hope that God has given to us. Our hope is for New Heavens and a New Earth where we find the tree of life once more, and it too has found its consummate purpose:

The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. (Revelation 22:2–3)

Paul’s theology of nakedness is a theology for shame. We don’t hope to be naked again (as though shame did not exist). Rather we hope for further clothing, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up with life. This informs our understanding of the relationship between sanctification/glorification and our current experience with shame. Sanctification for shame is more like the redemption of our bodies than the justification of our legal guilt. In the New Heavens and the New Earth our shame will be healed and transformed, and any remaining scars will declare the glorious grace of God.

I was in a near-fatal car accident when I was a freshman in college. By God’s grace both my friend who was riding with me and I were saved from what could have been death and destruction after I hit a guardrail head on. We were airlifted to the hospital and I was in an induced coma until the doctors could get my broken body stabilized. God protected us and saved us in an amazing way. My collapsed lung and broken bones were healed, and I carry almost no sign of that event, except for large scars on my right hand. My hand has recovered incredibly well from its initial mangled state, but it doesn’t look like it used to or what would be considered a normal hand, and it never will again.

One day I will receive a glorified body free from sin and frailty, perfectly suited to worship and enjoy God forever. But I hope these scars stays with me, because they are “scars of sovereign grace” (to borrow a phrase from John Piper). They are scars that testify of God’s saving work in my life and God’s power to redeem. And just as Jesus bears the scars of saving grace on his glorified body, so I hope to bear the scars of his preserving grace. Shameful experiences are injurious and oftentimes result in scarring. I think we all probably have some scars like that.

This passage invites us to groan with patience as our shameful experiences are sanctified. Our shame is not wiped away quite like our guilt. Shame is deeply connected to who we are, where we live, and the larger story that God has been writing in our life. Like bodily injuries, we can experience great and even complete healing from the harmful experiences and situations that produce shame in our lives, but often we are left with scars. These scars can be scars of sovereign grace, and in eternity they will glorify God just as our bodily scars, for God will resurrect, redeem, and renew.

But that means for now, we don’t look for our shame to be wiped away like our legal record, and being vulnerable may make us feel worse even when its the right thing to do. For now we groan. With courage and with hope.